There were a couple of omissions from Andy Beckett’s otherwise excellent piece on Chile (The 1973 coup against democratic socialism in Chile still matters – there, in Britain and beyond, 18 August). First, Beckett greatly underestimates the British government’s support for the refugees and the extent to which there was organised, widespread national opposition in Britain to the military regime.
Second, he fails to mention the role of Judith Hart, who – as the responsible government minister, appointed in 1974 – transferred all aid money allocated to the academic campaign to help Chilean refugees.
Academics for Chile, of which I was the lead organiser, brought no fewer than 3,000 academic refugees to the UK, who along with their families, amounted to approximately 9,000 people. In addition, there was an active movement to help non-academic refugees. There was also an active political movement called solidarity to oppose the regime. The only comparable movement in our history was that for the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.
Andy Beckett reminds us that the military coup which overthrew the Popular Unity government in Chile 50 years ago was welcomed by Margaret Thatcher and the radical right, casting doubt on their democratic credentials. But in reflecting on the causes of the coup, he fails to ask whether disaster could have been averted if President Salvador Allende had sought to broaden the basis of popular consent by bringing the Christian Democrats into government.
This was certainly the view taken at the time by Enrico Berlinguer, leader of the Italian Communist party (PCI), who was already moving towards the idea of a possible co-partnership or “historic compromise” with the ruling Christian Democrats, led by Aldo Moro, in a bid to tackle Italy’s mounting economic and political problems. The PCI had good reason to recall that in 1922 the refusal of leftwing parties to support Giovanni Giolitti and the liberal centre had handed power to Mussolini, and this same lesson was reinforced by the bloody victory of General Pinochet in Chile.
Andy Beckett is right to say that the Chile coup appears prophetic, showing how easily “the line between conservatism and authoritarianism” can be crossed. It was not, though, unique. At the start of the 20th century, the US positioned itself as the military wing of the United Fruit Company in Honduras, against the left and organised labour, and again in Guatemala in 1954, to install the dictator Carlos Castillo Armas.
The CIA and MI6 conspired to overthrow Mohammad Mosaddegh’s left-leaning government in Iran in 1953; the overthrow of Sukarno in Indonesia; the repeated attempts to depose Castro in Cuba; Operation Condor – the CIA-backed campaign of torture and repression that propped up rightwing dictatorships across South America… the list goes on. The lesson of all this is that the ruling class’s commitment to bourgeois democracy has only ever been skin-deep. Bloody Sunday and alleged shoot-to-kill operations in Northern Ireland show that guns are just as easily deployed here, if the need arises.
Hopefully, for the generations who have come into politics after these events, reflecting on them now will disabuse them of any notion that the bourgeoisie today has any great commitment to bourgeois democracy – and that, as we are starting to see again, it can all too quickly embrace coercion and repression.